Race to the bottom

Read Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk today.  He takes on the un-killable myth of what academic freedom and tenure do for academia:

Certainly, academic freedom is not a justification for saying anything you want and tenure is not a magic ticket that lets you be an a$$hole for the next thirty years. How many professors think it is? The authors of this piece seem to think it’s a lot.

.       .       .       .      .       .      

“Hate them!,” our new Tea Party Overlords say. “They live on our tax dollars [and] get summers off!” Of course, this sentiment has been out there for a long time, but seems somehow more important in the Scott Walker era than it ever did before. Ed at Gin and Tacos (whose political writing is so good that it makes me want to give up ever writing about conventional politics again due to my comparative inadequacy) covered the reasoning for this well a few days ago:

First they convinced the blue collars to scapegoat the Welfare Queens. Then the suburbanites scapegoated the blue collars and their cushy union factory jobs (hence NAFTA). Then the suburbanites started to cannibalize themselves: first the greedy retirees with their sweet benefits were redefined as Leeches, and now it’s the teachers and public sector workforce. While Americans in general have failed to notice how this game of “Find a new scapegoat every 3 years until there’s no one left with benefits or a salary over $10/hr ” has progressed methodically for several decades, the cops appear to have no illusions about what is happening. They are waking up to reality: “They’re going to come for us next.”

I confess that the arguments against tenure and unions kind of crack me up these days, in a gallows-humor fashion.  It’s like the writers of these anti-professor and anti-union screeds haven’t noticed that 1) tenure-track positions, and 2) union jobs are hard to come by these days, and represent only a small minority of jobs out there.  Higher education has effectively marginalized tenure all by itself, by adjunctifying the profession from within.  Someone much smarter and more devious than the rest of us figured out that contraception against institutions that protect workers’ rights is more effective and less controversial than infanticide.

Also, if you haven’t yet succumed to despair, go read Gene Lyons.

0 thoughts on “Race to the bottom

  1. Where I work now there is no tenure only six year contracts. But, we have a strong union. I think this is typical for a lot of countries outside of North America. Dean Dad says you can either have tenure or a union, but not both. I do not agree with this. However, you do have to decide which is the more important fight. Ideally one would want to have both tenure and a strong union. But, given that you join the union instantly and have to wait to get tenure if it is a choice of prioritizing then I think faculty unions are worth more. Unionizing all the faculty as well as other workers at an institution is probably a better use of resources than trying to save a few rapidly diminishing tenure track jobs. At my current place of work nobody has tenure and everybody is in the union and it seems to work pretty well.


  2. No question that a union would be better than tenure–I’d give away my tenure in a heartbeat if I could be in a union instead. A couple of years ago I did a sabbatical in Australia, a country where everyone on the uni payroll has job security. I thought it was awesome. Not happening in the USA; there’s no desire. Even my liberal colleagues feel repulsed by unions.


  3. I hear people say that we can’t have both tenure and unionization, but I wonder about this. The people who say this all seem to have an interest in keeping university faculties divided and disorganized. Somehow, the Cal State system does well for itself and by its faculty at the same time. Wayne State University in Detroit manages to carry on with a unionized faculty, and everyone I know who’s gone from a unionized faculty to a non-unionized faculty mourns the loss.

    The conflict between tenure and unions seems to be that tenure (and other evaluative processes) is about making distinctions about quality, whereas unions are about everyone being the same and getting the same fair shake. But I think that we could separate the evaluative nature of tenure and promotion decisions from the human resource-type issues that unions are focused on (benefits, salaries, etc.) That is, unions can ensure that all Associate Professors get a raise of X number of dollars and work to ensure salary equity across the rank, but the decision of who gets to be an Associate Professor would still rest with the departmental or college-wide T & P committee, Chairs, and Deans.

    At least this is how things *could* work. I realize that they *don’t* work this way in most cases. (I still think that the casualization of our labor is the biggest crisis to our profession, not the prospect of unions + tenure.)


  4. I agree wholeheartedly with the *theory* of Historiann’s second paragraph, above, concerning the potentially awkward relationship between distinctions and equality. In practice, as a tenured member of a unionized faculty, the issue can get beyond awkward with respect to *some* functions. Not everything that a faculty is required to do in the so-called “governance” sphere is equally amenable to a collective bargaining approach. I think.

    All that said, I think there is certainly at least theoretical room for a “faculty’s two bodies” model. For various reasons, unions tend to cluster at academic strata where teaching is heavy and the potential for “managerial” intrusion is thus high. The governance and collective-protectionist activities that unions either share in or try to usurp, like all other activities, absorb time, which is always finite and at a premium. Some people end up making unions a priority and a province while some others drift off to the library, the conference circuit, and scholarship. Tensions over how much of the latter is appropriate and required can themselves percolate and fester within the bargaining unit. No easy answers, but I think it’s better to have both than to not have either.


  5. Maybe where there is no tenure at all, unionize first and then use the union to fight for tenure? And where there is the usual combination of T/TT faculty plus a zillion adjuncts, unionize both adjunct and T/TT faculty, mainly to protect the adjuncts (with T/TT joining mainly to strengthen the union)?

    I always thought that if adjuncts had been largely unionized in the last 20 years, they’d have had better pay and more job stability all along, which in turn would have made adjunctification less attractive to the bean-counters in upper administration, which would have alleviated the hiring crisis. And today is 20 years from 20 years from now….


  6. I am tenure-track and unionized. I don’t see either as being under attack, but I’m sure our admin would prefer if they didn’t have to deal with both.


  7. Surely, unionising the TT would be a good thing in that the unions could monitor what is meant by ‘quality’, how it is applied, and raise concerns about unfair practice. It might also make the people making TT decisions more open and accountable about how they determine ‘quality’. I don’t really think these things are in conflict and may in fact help counter many of the concerns raised about how women or minority groups are often unfairly treated at TT decisions. (Not that unions always have a great track record in this area!).

    Having to fulfill certain contractual obligations for promotion, extension of contract, achieving certain pay grades etc, are not exclusive to academia- and unions help monitor and ensure fair practice in these sorts of areas all the time. For those on the TT, they could also help monitor promotions and ‘bonus’ pay- ensuring that the many cases we have heard of where high-achieving women are earning less than their male counterparts are dealt with quickly and without a lengthy legal battle (in the imaginary world where unions are effective, I might add).


  8. “I always thought that if adjuncts had been largely unionized in the last 20 years, they’d have had better pay and more job stability all along, which in turn would have made adjunctification less attractive to the bean-counters in upper administration, which would have alleviated the hiring crisis. And today is 20 years from 20 years from now….”

    Right. Wow, I wonder how none of us adjuncts ever thought of this? Now back to reality. At the moment, if the slightest whisper of “unionize” reaches the ears of the dept. chair or the administration above the chair, what will happen is a sudden and inexplicable cancellation of courses/sections, which in turn will lead to the permanent layoff of many, many adjuncts. Think I’m over-stating or striking an alarmist note? Temple Univ. in Philadelphia just did it, (http://temple-news.com/2010/12/06/adjunct-layoffs-increase-concern/) and the full-timer’s (i.e. T/TT) union at CUNY recently really fucked over their adjuncts. (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/04/22/adjuncts)

    Race to the bottom? How quaint. I’d say we’ve been at the bottom for a while now, but the T/TT set are only just figuring that out.


  9. Chris, we have a faculty union for full-time/permanent faculty and another for part-time/adjuncts here at Unloved University. We’ve had the two for almost a decade now, in large part because of the vigorous lobbying from the full-timer’s union.

    That hardly makes Unloved University a paradise: even with a good union contract, the administration is cutting off a wide swathe of regular sessionals (as well as making no replacement hires).

    Their solution to the lack of class options for students resulting from cutting full-time and part-time faculty? Shuffle them into online course sections run by a completely different sub-unit of the university with no union protection for the faculty involved. University regulations say full-time on-campus students can only take one distance ed course per term. Yet, somehow, the registration software “can’t” enforce that. Colour me unsurprised!

    All we can try to do is department-by-department refuse to authorize online sections, but even that is a bloody knockdown fight. Then they grudgingly direct those students to another university’s online course sections rather than authorize even a single course for a sessional faculty member.

    This sucks for everyone concerned, especially students.


  10. This is what I love: software making policy decisions. You partner-up with a “preferred vendor,” upload some expensive piece of acronymic $h^+, then explain to the instructional staff that although the faculty senate voted to implement a certain cutoff point for grade point average for, say, dropping students from enrollment, the program in question can’t process that datum. So students with averages slightly above that point will have to put up with a letter telling them how to apply for reinstatement after they’ve served their term of “rustication”–as they use to call it in England. This actually happened some years back at Leonid State U. There is a similar limit on the number of times a student can repeat a course in which they’ve gotten a D or an F to raise their GPA, but the software rides roughshod over that governance nicety as well.


  11. Chris, I am one of those adjuncts who’s been “fucked over” at CUNY. It is all the more galling to me, because I was a temporary full-timer for two years before returning to the adjunct pool.

    The problem is that CUNY’s union is entirely focused on such issues as teaching load and academic freedom for full-timers. To the union’s administration, adjuncts are just so many more sources of union dues.


  12. The fact remains that adjunct labor is exploitable because there’s a surplus of it out there and it’s not organized. Tenure-track faculty are little better off because of the (over)supply of qualified labor, which is why I support unionization for all.

    Chris notes that the price of unionization is the threat or prospect of unemployment. That’s not bad, compared to the men and women at River Rouge’s Battle of the Overpass who got their heads beat in by Pinkertons, in addition to unemployment! But the exploitable surplus of adjunct labor isn’t going to go away if none are willing to risk unemployment or a change of career. Think about it: the universities themselves are in control of the size of the TT pool of labor as well as the size of the adjunct pool. They set the conditions in which all faculty must negotiate for wages and benefits.

    If adjuncts *all* refused to sign contracts, their bargaining position w/r/t administrators would get a lot better. My university–like most unis out there–would not function without the willing labor of adjuncts. So it seems to me that in theory, adjuncts should be more eager to organize. It’s the tenure-track faculty who already have a kind of job security (although no guarantees on compensation, benefits, or workload expectations) who will be much harder to organize.


  13. I used to teach in Washington State. CC faculty are unionized. Adjuncts are protected by union contracts, paid according to contracts negotiated by the unions, and get health insurance and TIAA-CREF accounts if they meet the requirements, which are not all that hard to meet.

    Tenure files were interesting, but ultimately decided by faculty. Interesting in that they were very particular on the sorts of information that had to be collected for the files, and very precise on minimum requirements for tenure. Probationers were observed by colleagues every term, and by their deans once a year. We also needed letters from colleagues who attested to our service records and abilities. I can see disadvantages to the approach, in that there was probably more of possibility of “this person fulfilled the requirements and so you can’t deny hir tenure,” cases. But on the other hand, I’ve heard of enough cases where tenure was denied because of wacky departmental/divisional politics that I can’t fault the theory.


  14. Historiann, of course you’re right, in theory. In practice, however, is a different story. Put ideology aside for a moment and consider just the logistical difficulties of organizing adjuncts. We’re invisible, to paraphrase the once great former blog. But invisibility has a practical source: we’re here, then we’re there, then we’re elsewhere, and at 7 we’re back to there for a night class. Now add the fact that we’re a fairly heterogeneous bunch and do not all share the same ideological outlook. And what I mean by this is that many in the adjunct ranks, especially the younger ones, don’t realize they’re being exploited; while many others may realize in the abstract that they’re being exploited, but they don’t care because adjunct-teaching is their part-time gig and they have no reason to rock the boat.


  15. I think you’re right, Chris. Not having offices, space in which to gather, meetings in which to share concerns–all of these are terrific plans to destroy incipient solidarity.


  16. Agreed, H. Although I think it’s all even more devious than simply not having offices. Where I live, and this is purely anecdotal, I find that I’m the odd man out insofar as I actually make my living as an adjunct and teach 6-7 sections a semester. Most of my cohort do not work this way. The demographic profiles break down differently per the school. At one, the adjunct pool is really an army of retirees and semi-retirees; at another, it’s a combination of retirees and out-of-work certified teachers; and at the third, the critical mass of the adjuncts are female and all seem to have a partner/spouse who is the major earner. And most of these folks seem to be pursuing various writing careers — some are poets, others are freelance journalists, another is a play write and actress, and so on. The one common-denominator across all of these schools and demographics is that none of these folks are especially interested in going on strike.

    Damn, if only I’d found some lawyer chick to marry — honestly, I say that only partly tongue in cheek.


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